Graffiti – Art or Vandalism?

11.05.2012 : By Scott Lewis

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Banksy graffiti removal

One of my favorite forms of art is street art or graffiti. I won’t bother trying to deny that graffiti is vandalism. It is. But it is also art. In my opinion, one has no bearing on the other. The fact that graffiti is a crime is irrelevant to the argument as to whether or not it is art.

Art Happens

The idea of limiting art to what hangs on gallery or museum walls is absurd. The venue in which a work is displayed, unless the venue or environment is part of the work, is irrelevant. I would even argue that many times the venue inhibits a true experience of and with the art. People in museums walk around, hands folded behind their backs, speaking in hushed tones and acting serious and austere because they think that is how they are supposed to experience art. That behavior has more to do with the other museum or gallery visitors than it does with the art.

Art, in my opinion, is supposed to bring us into contact with our existence, our humanity. Art should make us laugh, or cry, or make us angry. It should, whatever it does, cause us to think, to question or to feel something. I’m not talking about feeling the warm cuddly feelings my mother gets from a Bob Ross (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Bob_Ross) painting. I’m talking about something that makes us see ourselves, our inner or outer world or existence in a different way.

If the art itself breaks the law in order to call into question the veneer of modern society, then so be it. If someone’s personal property is damaged or destroyed, I agree that is a crime and the artist is a criminal. But criminal though he be, he is no less an artist.

As participants in society, the individual is often inconvenienced or outright violated by that society. Innocent civilians are killed in wars, people are accidentally killed in motor vehicle crashes, private property can be confiscated by governments when doing so benefits society. If we accept these dangers, then why not the inconvenience of street art? To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “A little (non-violent) revolution from time-to-time is good for society”.

I admit that the majority of graffiti is not art and is created only to satisfy the exhibitionist urges of those who want to throw stones at society to get attention. Simply being angry and tagging a building or train box car doesn’t result in art.

By the same token, the fact that graffiti is vandalism does not mean that art can’t and doesn’t happen. Some of those outcasts are witty in addition to being angry and do create something meaningful and relevant. They hold a mirror up to the face of society. They place their mirrors in the public sphere the same way that corporations assault us with advertisements to stimulate our fears and passions in order to manipulate us into “Working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need” (Thank you Tyler Durden (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt0137523/)).

Barack Obama posters

Occasionally an image strikes such a powerful chord, it becomes embedded in a culture’s visual lexicon. Two great examples of this are the image, created by Firas Alkhateeb, of President Barack Obama with his face painted as the Joker (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Joker%22_poster) from Batman: The Dark Knight and the Obama Hope campaign poster (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Hope%22_poster) created by Shepard Fairey (http://obeygiant NULL.com/). Two opposing but equally powerful images of the same subject. Whether or not you agree with the message of either image, it is difficult to deny that they are incredibly powerful.

The Obama-as-Joker image is a visual pun that hits the mark. The image became an iconic banner for those who already dislike President Obama and gets up the ire of those who like the President. I am not aware of anyone who has had a neutral reaction to the image – and that is the point of art.

The Obama Hope poster is reminiscent of early 20th century propaganda posters. The image of Barack Obama is highly idealized and uses very patriotic colors. Laura Barton of the Guardian said the poster “acquired the kind of instant recognition of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Che_Guevara_(photo)#Jim_Fitzpatrick), and is surely set to grace T-shirts, coffee mugs and the walls of student bedrooms in the years to come.”

Art is not always pretty, its message may not always be pleasant and it may not even always be legal, but that is not the point of art. Art is not decoration and it is not created to match your new sofa from Pottery Barn. Art is a mirror. It is a caustic agent to agitate the consciousness of society.

Related Links

  • 80 Beautiful Street Crimes Done By Banksy (http://www NULL.boredpanda NULL.com/80-beautiful-street-crimes-done-by-banksy/)
  • Exit through the Gift Shop (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt1587707/)
  • Ryan McGuinnes (http://www NULL.ryanmcginness NULL.com/index NULL.html)
  • Banksy (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Banksy)
  • Shepard Fairey (http://obeygiant NULL.com/)
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